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Mike Jacobs: An election heads-up shows shifts but no big surprises

It’s been a lively election campaign, and late developments cannot be ruled out.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs
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This is the biennial “election outlook” column. A caveat here: I’m writing early in the morning of Halloween, Oct. 31 – eight days ahead of Election Day. It’s been a lively election campaign, and late developments cannot be ruled out. It’s been an unexpectedly vigorous campaign, with two high-profile contests and two consequential ballot initiatives.

The U.S. Senate race has been the most boisterous. There are three candidates.

The Republican, John Hoeven, has held the office for 12 years, following 10 years as governor, making him the senior figure in state politics.

The Democratic candidate, Kristina Christiansen, has made a credible campaign. She’ll likely do better against Hoeven than any of his earlier Senate opponents, who won 22% and 17% of the votes cast. She has the potential to regain the historic plateau that Democratic candidates used to expect, and credible party candidates have achieved in recent elections — about 35% of the vote, which can be regarded as the “hard core” of the Democratic Party in the state.

The real question is the third candidate, state Rep. Rick Becker, the bad boy of North Dakota politics. He is running as an independent after losing the endorsement at the Republican state convention, which was a raucous affair. Becker leans to the right, sometimes so far he loses his balance. He cultivated a following in the state House, the so-called Bastiat Caucus, and an even larger and more enthusiastic group of delegates to the state convention. His showing will reflect the strength of the right wing in North Dakota.

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My guess is that Becker and Christiansen will have strong races, fueled by enthusiastic supporters. Each might get as much as 30% of the vote, maybe a bit more. That imperils Hoeven, since a plurality wins in a three-person race. That outcome seems unlikely, but it’s not out of the question.

The contest for the stature’s single seat in the U.S. House also has its peculiarities. Mark Haugen, the Democratic nominee, won 34% of the vote for state auditor in 2020, leading the party’s ticket. He dropped out of the U.S. Senate race reportedly under pressure from senior Democrats, who wanted to clear the field for Cara Mund, running as an independent. She’s a former Miss America and has a law degree. She’s successfully distanced herself from the Democrats, notably by criticizing President Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan. Her focus has been on abortion rights, a volatile issue. The last test of North Dakota sentiment on “life” issues occurred in 2014, when a “personhood amendment” got only 36% of the vote.

The Republican candidate, Kelly Armstrong, has served four years in the U.S. House after a career in the state Legislature, where he built a solid reputation as chair of the House Judiciary Committee.

Mund’s race hasn’t attracted much attention outside the state, and little money. Still, she’s made an impression in personal appearances and broadcast debates. “Choice” is a hot-button issue that could draw votes from Republicans as well as Democrats. Mund could reach 40% of the vote, maybe more if the passion behind abortion rights issue heats up in the last week of the campaign.

There are “down ballot” races for secretary of state, attorney general, agriculture commission, tax commissioner and two seats on the Public Service Commission. Democrats have essentially forfeited all of these, and literally forfeited the tax commissioner’s office, once the training ground for future Democratic office holders, including U.S. Sens. Byron Dorgan, Kent Conrad and Heidi Hieitkamp.

There are two ballot initiatives, both consequential.

Measure One would impose term limits on state officials, though it wouldn’t debar any current office holders. This is the second iteration of right-wing activism on the ballot this year, after Becker’s independent candidacy. Leaders in both parties have condemned the idea, arguing that tenure leads to more knowledgeable lawmakers and state officials. I’d like to be against this one, because I think term limits would reduce the quality of legislation and deny voters the right to elect lawmakers and state officials of their choice. Earlier efforts at term limits have failed. This one appears well funded and likely to pass.

I’d like to bet in favor of the second ballot measure, which would legalize recreational use of marijuana. I’m no stranger to marijuana, and I know from experience that it is a less dangerous drug than alcohol, which is legal and easy to get.

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Grand Forks County voters have an important question on the ballot, home rule. This is a transparently good idea, as I argued in last week’s column. The campaign against home rule has been unexpected, especially since it is driven by conservatives who argue in favor of government closer to home, which is exactly what home rule would accomplish. My guess is that home rule itself — and the associated sales tax — will fail, even though the tax would broaden the tax base and ease the burden on property owners, who now fund county government.

I’m being a little self-interested here. I just bought a big house in a south-end neighborhood just as my discretionary spending has gone down, and so has the sales tax that I pay.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.

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